WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Last month’s coup in Niger has raised questions about whether the United States can maintain the 1,100-strong military presence in the country that officials and analysts say has been instrumental in fighting Islamist militants in the Sahel region.
Over the past decade, U.S. forces have trained Nigerian forces in counterterrorism and have operated two military bases, one carrying out drone missions against the Islamic State and one of al-Qaeda’s affiliates in the region.
After President Mohamed Bazoum was ousted from office on July 26 and placed under house arrest, the junta canceled military cooperation agreements with France, which has between 1,000 and 1,500 soldiers in the country.
Two US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the US has not yet received any request to withdraw its forces and has no indication it will be forced to do so.
But with the West African regional bloc ECOWAS threatening military intervention and the Russian Wagner mercenary group aiding the coup leaders — both of which could pose safety risks to US military personnel — US planners could find themselves contemplating a future without a foothold in a part of Africa facing insurgencies. and where the United States competes with Russia and China for influence.
“Our drone base in Niger is very important in the fight against terrorism in the region,” said one US official. “If that gets closed, that would be a huge blow.”
The Biden administration has not officially classified the military takeover in Niger as a coup, a designation that would limit the security assistance Washington can provide to the country.
However, the United States last week halted some foreign assistance programs for Niger and said on Tuesday that this includes funding for international military education and training and programs that support Niger’s counterterrorism capabilities. Military training is suspended.
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken declined to comment on Tuesday in an interview with the BBC on the future presence of US forces present in Niger with the approval of the ousted government.
The US drone base has grown in importance due to the lack of Western security partners in the region.
Military juntas have come to power through coups in Mali and Burkina Faso – both of Niger’s neighbors – in recent years. More than 2,000 French soldiers left Mali last year and a 13,000-strong United Nations peacekeeping force is due to be shut down by the end of the year after the junta abruptly asked to leave.
The drone base, known as Air Base 201, was built near Agadez in central Niger at a cost of more than $100 million. Since 2018, it has been used to target the Islamic State group Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimeen and al-Qaeda in the Sahel region.
Since the coup, US forces have largely stayed at their bases, and US military flights, including drones, have been approved individually, according to US officials.
Cameron Hudson, a former US official now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said he believes Washington will likely try to continue using the drone base regardless of who is in charge of Niger.
“From a political perspective or from an optics perspective, it is definitely easier to defend,” Hudson said, explaining that while the cooperation of the Niger authorities has been essential to survival, it helps the United States gather intelligence on militant targets throughout the region and will not directly benefit . Military Council.
The United States may have to reconsider its presence if members of the Economic Community of West African States, who will meet on Thursday, decide to intervene militarily. The military council defied the Aug. 6 deadline set by the Economic Community of West African States to reinstate ousted President Mohamed Bazoum.
Terrence McCauley, who previously served as US ambassador to Mali, Nigeria and Ivory Coast and is now at the United States Institute of Peace, said the US military would make a “force protection decision” if conflict broke out, adding that such an intervention was theoretical at this point, and would not have been. It is expected that the Economic Community of West African States will carry out such a process quickly.
Another complicating factor could be any decision the coup leaders in Niger make to seek help from the Wagner Group, which the US has designated as a transnational criminal organization. Wagner’s boss, Yevgeny Prigozhin, welcomed the coup in Niger and said his forces were ready to restore order.
Wagner’s mercenaries cooperated with the Military Council in Mali in 2021 and have about 1,000 fighters in the country, as the jihadists control vast areas of the northern and central desert.
One US official said that if Wagner fighters showed up in Niger, it would not automatically mean that US forces would have to leave.
The official said a scenario in which a few dozen Wagner troops are stationed in Niamey, the capital of Niger, is unlikely to affect the US military presence.
But if thousands of Wagner fighters are deployed across the country, including near Agadez, problems could arise due to concerns about the safety of American personnel.
Regardless, the US will set the bar high for any decision to leave the country.
“The only way for this mission to end is for the government of Niger to ask us to leave,” the first US official said. “It is very important for us to let go.”
Additional reporting by Idriss Ali, Daphne Psalidakis and Simon Lewis; Editing by Michelle Nichols, Don Durfey and Deba Babbington
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